As a mom to both twin toddlers and a teenager, its suffice to say that one of my greatest parenting challenges surrounds all of the decisions regarding screen time and technology. I’ve adopted a mixed bag of opinions as to whether the injection of technology in the lives of our teenagers is costing them more than we realize, and yet never has the use of screens and technology taken center stage more than during this coronavirus epidemic. So for better, or for worse…we are all being forced to adapt and adopt to our new virtual world – so we better get on board. As I sat next to my son last week on his first day of online school listening to his peers small-talk before the teacher entered the virtual classroom, I couldn’t help but take great pause at just how different his entire inner world is going to be in juxtaposition to my high school experience. It is something I have struggled with for the better part of a year as I have wrestled with him to comprehend just how valuable it is to get outside into the real world to connect with people and share experiences. We have had too many knock-down-drag-out fights over screen time limits, my monitoring of his interactions against his desire for autonomy and privacy, and of course, the dreaded video games to count.
At some point in the evolution of my own information gathering and subsequent boundary setting on the topic, I can recall taking various devices away from him in order to recalibrate his priorities and mindset, and watching as he became so hysterical and filled with rage it was as if he was detoxing from a drug. This is from a kid who spends hours a day playing soccer/studying for school, and who participated in no less than six group sports his entire life. Even with his very limited screen exposure throughout all his years, it seemed as if he had grown so attached to whatever reward he was extracting from the games and videos, that withholding it was a form of punishment. It was one of those “WHOA” parenting moments in which we as parents take a big step back and say…something doesn’t feel right here. This isn’t good.
As the weeks and months waned on, and I slowly whittled down the game time to no more than two hours per week, I found that my 15 year old slowly adjusted to all of the “boring” space in which there
was “nothing to do,” and started getting back to the ways of entertaining himself that more closely mirrored my own formative teenage experiences. He was riding his bike again, picking up the phone to ask people to go see a movie, and coming upstairs to join in our family experiences. Within the three months that followed the great takeaway of technology, his grades went up substantially, he had tremendous breakthroughs in soccer, and that frustrated chip on his shoulder attitude that emerged the year before dissolved almost completely. At that point, there was no doubt in my mind that life was better for my child in the absence of a virtual reality.
And well……the coronavirus hit and a new battle emerged.
While it had taken months to support him in creating new ways of living in the real world, it took only days to rip all of that away. The routines, structured schedules, and disciplined trainings that he finally was able to lean into were ripped away overnight, and all that was left were the four walls of our house and our backyard. How can you take everything away that keeps a kid grounded, busy, and “on track,” while also limiting the only way they have to connect to the outside world? More importantly, what in the world was I supposed to do with three kids in my house 24 hours a day for the unforeseeable future?
While some of the moms I know went immediately into tiger mom overdrive – erecting schedules and elaborate French lessons, I could do little more than figure out how to wash my groceries, cook 3924893 meals a day, and focus on my own self-care in order to regulate my nervous system as to avoid pouring all of my anxious stress energy all over my kids while losing my ever living mind. So, what did I do to keep my said teenager out of my hair while I hid in the bedroom with my laptop while obsessively watching the news and scrolling social media feeds?
You got it…I plugged in that video game and said, “go crazy kiddo.” And I am pretty sure the first two weeks we were in quarantine our family was collectively breaking the internet. And that’s the thing about crisis and tragedy – it is okay to use crutches to cope with the initial blow of our lives being turned upside down. It’s okay that we gave our kids the games while they assimilated to so much change at once….that we drank too much wine and ate too much chocolate while we did the same. What’s not okay is staying there, and allowing crutches to become coping mechanisms which become habitual ways in which we numb down that which is hard and uncomfortable and needs to be brought to the surface.
I like to think that slowly – day by day, we are all beginning to adjust to this new normal. I managed to navigate 493043 Zoom meetings, Google classrooms, and even take an online workout. We finally hacked the grocery store delivery system to learn which stores on what days will take orders and get them delivered in any kind of reasonable time. We took a collective deep breath and said it’s time to turn off the dreaded news already, and to stop scrolling feeds to find a way to control the uncontrollable. School started back up which brought routines and structure back to our lives in some way, and we figured out that a virtual happy hour is a hell of a lot better than no happy hour at all. We are coming back to center, back to presence, back to figuring out how to intentionally curate our new lives.
The final step in this process for me was walking back into my son’s room – unplugging the game – having the dreaded argument that followed in which my son’s rage, anger and frustration came barreling out at me – and then finally holding him ever so closely while he sobbed while letting it all out….all that has been lost, and all that has been taken away from him against his will. At the end of it, I sat down and I wrote him a letter – I like to call it a “big life letter” – it’s everything I want him to know about my values and beliefs about life, it details everything that makes him so special, what he means to me, and the dreams I hold for him for his future.
A quote from that letter says, “I know what it feels like to have life hijack your progress and set you back – we are all experiencing that right now. It’s okay to mourn that loss, and to feel like it’s unfair and to be pissed about it….but this won’t be the first time that your life gets taken off track by things outside of your control and this is your chance to develop the muscles you will need in the future to bounce back from those obstacles and to come out on the other side stronger than you were before. You are stronger than you know.”
This is our chance to teach our kids that it’s okay to fall off the horse and fall apart when life’s blows come for us. It’s perfectly human to slide into bad habits when we are coping with big losses, but the most important lesson is how we stand back up to discover what we can gain from the things we lose. Resilience is a muscle – and this is our opportunity to help strengthen that muscle in our children and empower them to see that they will be stronger and more powerful because of it – especially in our new virtual reality.